Living without legs

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

In her tiny five metre by five metre block in a suburban Mumbai slum, Bharti Sawant is making flower garlands. “I think making garlands is an art. I want to take my art to people,” she says and falls silent for a moment.

She looks down at herself and points towards where her ankles should have been. “I don’t have legs, so I can’t spend time walking on the streets looking for customers. I have to sit at the market,” Bharti says.
 
Bharti crawls towards the stove, which is placed at ground-level, like everything else in her tiny room. As she serves tea, she lifts up her petticoat and says, “I don’t wear my artificial limbs all the time, because it’s not practical at home. I use them when I am heading out for work.”

Hear Bharti’s story in her own words on this week’s show:
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When she was 20, Bharti fell in love with a young man called Sudharkar Sawant.  But for her family, it was not an acceptable match.  He was missing a leg but possibly worse than the handicap was the fact that he was from a lower caste.

Suicide
She thought of ending her life. “I don’t know what happened that day. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I don’t know how I reached the railway tracks. But I remember lying down on the rail tracks.  But it was a botched attempt.  She woke up in the hospital, alive.  But her legs were gone.

Sudharkar came to see her in hospital, but she was unprepared for his reaction.  He told her: 'I used to consider you beautiful. What have you done?’ That’s when I saw the true worth of his love. I think he stopped loving me right then,” Bharti says.

Bharti got prosthetic legs from a local NGO, the Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS).

“I am indebted to them, that they offered me a chance to walk again. It took me six months to get used to the new way of life and things are still difficult for me. Something as simple as going to the toilet is a challenge. I do it like a child,” Bharti says.

Bharti and Sudharkar eventually married - with no opposition from her family this time.  But it was not a happy marriage.  On the day she went into labour with her first child, Sudharkar came home with a second wife.

It took a few years for Bharti to ‘get her husband back.’  She had another baby and hoped that she would get the normal family life she'd always craved.  But Sudharkar stopped working, got into enormous debt, and eventually packed a bag and left.  Since then Bharti has struggled to educate her children - they live in a boarding school, paid for by an NGO, and she's eking out a selilng flowers and reparing clothes.

When she was a teenager, Bharti never imagined her life would turn out like this. No husband, no income. No legs. And two children to take care of while she pays off her husband’s debts.

If you'd like to help Bharti you can write to the Bhagwan Mahavir Vikalang Sahayta Samiti at bmvss@gmail.com